First Things First business plan

John Spencer wants designers to stop targeting a ‘punch-drunk consumer society’ and start tackling meaningful social and ethical issues.

On 29 November 1963, Ken Garland launched his First Things First manifesto. It touched a nerve. It was a rant against the graphic design industry’s focus on work that he believed was trivial. It was a call for designers to put their skills to more worthwhile social and ethical use. In 2000, the original call was renewed, with the hope that ‘no more decades will pass before it is taken to heart’.

The concerns raised by these two manifestos refuse to go away. Indeed, the need for designers to engage with social and ethical issues is now more important than ever. Yet the design industry continues to devote a disproportionate amount of talent, energy and time to things that are inessential at best. It is guilty of complicity in creating a punch-drunk, consumer society, and still has no real inclination to help tackle many of the very real, and increasingly urgent, social and ethical problems.

The meagre amount of social and ethical design that is taken on is, more often than not, half-hearted. It is incapable of making any real difference to anyone, because it has not been given the attention it deserves. It is not supported by a good understanding of an organisation’s objectives, an appreciation of the environment in which it operates or sufficient knowledge of, often, extremely sensitive issues.

The design industry is more inclined to flirt with social and ethical work than to genuinely engage with it. Projects like this frequently win creative awards because they are done at cost, in return for more creative freedom than is enjoyed in the ‘commercial world’. These selfish trade-offs are both unprofessional and irresponsible.

We need to challenge attitudes and change the way people think – to work with organisations whose ambitions go beyond the bottom line, to help them make a real difference.

If, like us, your clients include charities, educational institutions, industry associations, central and local Government, commercial ventures that are owned by non-profit organisations, ethically principled companies and companies that have a genuine need to market their social and ethical activities, you will know it is a massive challenge.

It is possible to decline to work with rabidly commercial companies that put profits above all else and have no interest in the effect their activities have on the world around them. Why entertain companies that exploit social and ethical issues as a marketing ploy?

Design is a competitive, cut-throat world, particularly for a consultancy that works with social and ethical clients, because relatively low budgets are the norm.

Even so, our profit margin is three times the industry average, with more than 25 per cent of our turnover kept as profit on our balance sheet and at least three months’ operating capital in the bank. Our shareholders and directors keep the profits in the business. We have a turnover of £100 000 per person, compared with an industry average of £68 000 and we pay salaries that are above the industry average. And we have been working at full capacity throughout a particularly grinding recession.

So how do you do it? Commitment and passion alone are no guarantee of success, but an intelligent and engaging product is essential. Furthermore, a talented, articulate and supportive design team, with real empathy for the work, is indispensable. You should not employ anyone who is not up to the challenge of creating the best possible work, sometimes for the worst conceivable fee.

Moreover, time is saved and misunderstandings avoided when designers have direct, day-to-day contact with clients. There is no substitute for hands-on, designer-led account management, particularly when projects demand an understanding of complex social, educational, cultural or political contexts.

Strategic consultancy should only be offered where appropriate. It is too commonly used by designers as an overpriced end in itself or a smokescreen for mediocre creative work. You need consummate sales and marketing skills, efficient management and disciplined financial control. A non-executive chairman is useful to keep you on the straight and narrow, and to be your mentor and the devil’s advocate.

Most importantly of all, you need absolute confidence in the value of your work and an unshakable belief that truly good design is socially and ethically responsible.

John Spencer is creative director of Spencer du Bois


It’s a question of ethics

• Avoid companies that only care about their bottom line

• Understand the social and ethical environment

• Develop an intelligent and engaging product

• Employ people who have real empathy for the work

• Encourage hands-on, designer-led account management

• Set up efficient management and financial systems

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